Monday 23 September 2019

Helping Haiti's children in face of island's despair

Children outside a church in the Haitian city of Jérémie, where 296 people have sought refuge after their homes were destroyed
Children outside a church in the Haitian city of Jérémie, where 296 people have sought refuge after their homes were destroyed

Peter Power

Haiti is in crisis. It is not the first time this nation has been hit by a natural disaster of epic proportions, but that did not protect the 2.1 million people who felt the wrath of Hurricane Matthew when it made landfall in the region on October 4.

Unicef Ireland immediately launched an emergency appeal. One month on, I have travelled to Haiti to assess the most urgent needs of the one million children who survived.

Sadly, I know the country well. The last time I was here, it was 2010 and an earthquake had ripped through the land. More than six years have passed, but - incredibly - 55,000 people were still displaced after that event when Hurricane Matthew, the most powerful storm in a decade to hit the Caribbean, slammed into Haiti. I felt then as I do today, afraid for children here. Their short lives have been defined by unfair challenges. Their needs are many, but we know how to help and we can do this.

As I travel around the worst-affected west, the damage is extreme - 150,000 homes flattened in this region alone. The city of Jérémie is largely in ruins; in Les Cayes - the town now familiar to many from news reports - all of the crops have been destroyed.

I am at least thankful that Unicef's long-term team of 89 aid workers managed to pre-position emergency supplies like clean water in many of the areas that were subsequently hit. Our teams were back in the affected areas less than 24 hours after the hurricane.

Since then, 170 metric tonnes of emergency supplies have been flown in from our logistics hubs in Panama and Copenhagen. Our teams have been working flat out for weeks to scale up our response, providing emergency packs with blankets and hygiene kits, providing clean water for hundreds of thousands of people, and establishing 14 rapid-response cholera teams. First and foremost, Haitian children need clean water, and the chance to remain cholera-free.

Cholera spreads rapidly through cramped and overcrowded conditions. Unicef is working hard to improve hygiene. Our other defence against cholera is vaccination.

Parents know cholera can kill a child in hours and there has been a tenfold increase in cholera, so demand is enormous.

Hunger is a huge danger. Children under five, and pregnant women, need nutritional protection from malnutrition. We also need to be vigilant in terms of child protection.

In times of emergency, children can fall victim to abuse or neglect. The best thing we can do is reunite unaccompanied children with their families. That process isn't always easy - we hear reports of children being left at care centres as their families lose hope that they can provide for them.

For the children themselves, we provide play centres and psychosocial supports. These children are traumatised - school and play help them recover. These simple things can help mend a broken childhood, as unbelievable as that may seem. Children need schools to return to. Unfortunately, hundreds of schools in the West have been destroyed, or they are out of commission.

For me this is the saddest repercussion of Hurricane Matthew. Unicef is leading a global push to prioritise education during emergencies, not just after normality is beginning to return. That is why among the chartered planeloads of emergency materials we are dispatching, we have packed school-in-a-box kits.

These extraordinary trunks contain everything a teacher needs to establish a learning centre for children displaced or affected by emergency.

If we can provide an educational environment while the emergency is still happening, we know children can better avoid child trafficking, child marriage, a life as a child combatant, or one of forced labour.

Some 106,000 children are currently out of school here, and yet when I do see a glimmer of hope, it is among the groups of children I pass on the street making their way to school, swinging Unicef backpacks.

Haitian and World Bank officials say the hurricane caused nearly $2bn (€1.8bn) of damage. More than a million children have been affected. Unicef must find $22.5m (€20.2bn) to fund its essential work.

Behind the figures stand the people of Haiti. This is the second natural disaster many of them have endured in their lifetime - made doubly difficult by the fact their nation lacks the basic infrastructure to cope with existing challenges including malnutrition, disease and drought, not to mind a fresh emergency.

Peter Power is Unicef Ireland executive director. Unicef Ireland has launched an emergency appeal for the children of Haiti. Visit or call 01 878 3000.

Irish Independent

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